Shiva Baby

 

starstarstarstar

 


A comedy of wide appeal, especially if one relishes smart dialogue. 

 
Shiva Baby

Rachel Sennott

 

The fact that Shiva Baby marks Emma Seligman’s feature debut as both writer and director renders its success all the more striking. At the same time, it prompts me to ask a question: are those elements in it that I nevertheless regard as misjudgments features that will be avoided as her career develops or should they just be seen as part of a personal style to which I fail to warm? Either way, what stands out here is the confidence of this first feature, so let us start there.

 

Shiva Baby is a Jewish comedy very much built around its central character, the twenty-something Danielle played by Rachel Sennott. For most of the time we see her at a family gathering, a shiva, albeit that she is somewhat vague about the identity of the distant relative being mourned. But it’s not that which suggests that she may find this an uneasy occasion. There are two guests whose presence is awkward for her. One of these is Maya (Molly Gordon). Her attendance is not unexpected but this gathering is one at which if you are young and unmarried you can expect to be questioned about any new developments and Maya, a friend for years, also happens to have been Danielle’s lover. It is no surprise to us to discover that Debbie (Polly Draper), Danielle’s mother, is a typically strong Jewish matriarch, but Seligman gives us an updated version of this familiar figure. Having lived in New York in the 1980s, Debbie claims to be broadminded. However, if that means that she has been aware of her daughter’s interest in Maya, it does not amount to acceptance or approval (“no funny business with Maya”). What Debbie doesn’t suspect is that Danielle may be bisexual and that to raise funds to help her in her studies she has been charging for sexual services. And that’s what brings us to the other guest who dismays Danielle when he appears unexpectedly: it is none other than her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) and, what’s more, he turns up with his wife (Dianna Agron) and their baby of whom she knew nothing.

 

With almost all of the film being set during the shiva, Seligman’s movie offers very limited action but that is no drawback since pointed dialogue is her strong point. That led me to think of another highly literate debut feature, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan of 1989, but an even more relevant comparison is to be found in the work of Billy Wilder, and not least his 1960 classic The Apartment. Here as there, we have a worldly-wise film that finds comedy in situations that are frank about sexual behaviour but refuses to moralise even as it evokes our concern for its characters and their future. Shiva Baby has an excellent cast but it is Sennott who is the crucial player because, in addition to her comedic skills in the delivery of lines, she ensures that Danielle comes across as somebody still finding her way in life. Consequently, even when her behaviour can be regarded as bad, she retains our sympathy and we hope for an eventual good outcome for her.

 

At 78 minutes, Shiva Baby is suitably succinct, never overplayed and adroit in the balance it maintains between its humour and the realistic characterisations that make it work whenever it moves ever so slightly towards tragicomedy. As for the faults that tell against it in my eyes, they are two in number. In a film in which words count for so much I find it tiresome when Seligman brings in at intervals a self-consciously off-beat music score featuring strings synths and percussion. Similarly, while much of the direction is well-judged, there are times when the film comes to feel choppy through over-editing. On one such occasion there is the excuse that it is building to a climax, but elsewhere it can seem fussy. However, some will doubtless disagree with me over this and there is in any case quite enough in Shiva Baby to make it one of the few comedies of recent years to remind us of past examples of the genre in which one could truly relish the dialogue. Emma Seligman is a new talent to watch.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron, Jackie Hoffman, Sondra James, Glynis Bell, Cilda Shaur, Rita Gardner, Deborah Offner, Vivien Landau.

 

Dir Emma Seligman, Pro Kieran Altmann, Katie Schiller, Lizzie Shapiro and Emma Seligman, Screenplay Emma Seligman, Ph Maria Rusche, Pro Des Cheyenne Ford, Ed Hanna Park, Music Ariel Marx, Costumes Michelle J. Li.

 

Neon Heart Productions/It Doesn’t Suck Productions/Dimbo Pictures/Thick MediaA Bad Mensch-Mubi.
78 mins. USA/Canada. 2020. Rel: 9 June 2021. Cert. 15.